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Termites, ants can 'prospect' for gold

Dec. 11, 2012 at 2:39 PM   |   Comments

BRISBANE, Australia, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Above-ground termite and ant mounds can point the way to possible gold and other mineral deposits beneath the surface, Australian scientists say.

A test site in West Australian goldfields indicated that termite mounds contained high concentrations of gold, suggesting there is a larger deposit underneath, says research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia's national science agency.

"We're using insects to help find new gold and other mineral deposits," Aaron Stewart, an entomologist with CSIRO, said in a release.

CSIRO says that insects could provide a cost effective and environmentally friendly method of exploring for new mineral deposits instead of expensive and often inaccurate drilling.

Mineral resources account for $91.27 billion of Australia's exports.

"These resources are becoming increasingly hard to find because much of the Australian landscape is covered by a layer of eroded material that masks what's going on deeper underground," Stewart said.

To build their homes, or mounds, termites bring up dirt from below the surface. The insects bring up small particles that contain gold from the deposit's fingerprint, or halo, effectively stockpiling it in their mounds, Stewart said.

While termites can dig as far as 98 feet underground, most of the dirt for their mounds comes from about 2 to 6 feet down, the level at which a residue can be seen that would indicate more substantial mineral deposits further below.

When that soil ends up in the termite mound, geologists and entomologists can have a closer look.

"You definitely need specialized equipment. What we have to do is take the soil away and have it analyzed by a laboratory, which will do some mass spectrometry and find the gold that way," Stewart told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

While gold can be found in both small and large mounds, any "discovery" from it would be at very low levels, he said.

Jens Balkau, exploration manager for gold miner and explorer Regis Resources, told Brisbane's The Courier Mail newspaper that the research "is probably still early days in terms of it becoming a practical exploration tool, but it holds a lot of promise."

Two of the world's 10 largest gold mines are in Australia, says a Mining Australia report.

"The Super Pit" in Western Australia, ranked ninth worldwide, produces around 850,000 ounces of gold annually and is run by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines. Boddington gold mine in Western Australia, run by Newmont ranked 10th worldwide and had reserves of 20 million ounces of gold at year-end 2010.

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